Automakers to White House: Make a Deal With California on Fuel Economy

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Despite pressuring Donald Trump to lower corporate fuel economy mandates since practically day one of his presidency, automakers are now urging caution. The U.S. Transportation Department has drafted a proposal that would freeze vehicle requirements at 2020 levels through 2026, the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead administrator made a public case for rolling back mileage targets, and the White House seems ready to help car companies lower the bar.

Automakers seem to have won, so why the change of heart?

There’s a fly in the ointment. California and sixteen other U.S. states have vowed to maintain the existing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards by any means necessary. Right now, there’s a California lawsuit accusing the EPA of arbitrarily reversing its course to side with automakers. The state is also pressing the federal government to validate its fuel economy waiver, which would allow it to set its own standards.

For automakers, making a deal with California is essential. If a handful of states keep more stringent fuel economy mandates, companies will still have to adhere to them. There’s little sense in building cars that meet the relaxed rules for most of the country if there’s still a significant number of states hitting the industry with penalties. Manufacturers would have to cater to the greener tastes of California, making this whole endeavor a lot less valuable.

On Friday, Trump met with auto industry leaders over the vehicle emissions rules. Afterward, two major auto industry trade groups said in a joint statement that Trump expressed an “openness to a discussion with California on an expedited basis.”

The accuracy of that claim is debatable. According to Reuters, California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young said the state has not been contacted by the administration since Friday’s meeting. But we do know more talks with California were planned for this month. Whether or not they are a priority is another matter. The administration has been fairly clear that it doesn’t want to further delay the rollout of the proposal by debating with the state.

In fact, the lawsuit may have already pushed the issue past the point of negotiation. The Transportation Department’s fuel proposal carefully asserts that the 1975 federal CAFE law preempts states from imposing their own emissions rules, even those that were later granted waivers. It sounds as if everyone is already gearing up for a legal battle.

Mitch Bainwol, who heads the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and attended the meeting on Friday, said he still believes compromises can be made. “This is a solvable problem. There’s an outcome here that’s good for California, that’s good for this administration and terrific for the men and women who work for this sector,” he said.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • DenverMike DenverMike on May 17, 2018

    The Autopilot cars should go into "limp mode", activate the 4-way flashers, trigger annoying buzzers, then 20% below the speed limit, when they detect their drivers aren't paying attention to the road, hands off, and or went unconscious. Elon Musk took the latest driver "assist" tech, bastardized it and called it his own, just to help sell the hell out of cars to crash test dummies.

    • SunnyvaleCA SunnyvaleCA on May 18, 2018

      Nooooooooo! Traffic is already slow enough without 1/2 the Teslas going 20% below the speed limit!

  • LDeaton LDeaton on May 17, 2018

    Native people hundreds of years ago referred to the L A basin as "The Valley of Smoke" It is a victim of geography and topography. Most days, there is an inversion layer that traps everything. Up until the 70's, every house had an incinerator in the backyard for burning trash. Bob Hope (who's he?) was making jokes in the 40's about LA smog. Saw a report within the last year that despite guvment's best efforts, air pollution has not declined in years, and by far, most of it does not come from internal combustion.

  • Theflyersfan I guess I should have kept my first ever car which was also a 1987 Nissan. Probably could have sold it for $50,000 by now if I was living in this fantasy world where used up 37 year old Nissans sell for the same price as a new Versa. I wish a link was here so all of us can check out this treasure among junk 200SX. The only way this car is even remotely worth that kind of money is if there are illicit substances hidden somewhere in the frame that, as part of the sale, you have to drive across the border and "make a delivery." Otherwise, get that thing off of my lawn.
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  • Formula m Alfa-Romeo had the great idea to unveil my all time favourite car at the world expo in Montreal. Never built or Sold in North America. The called it the Alfa Romeo Montreal. Never even sold in North America.